Is Ali Gray a daredevil in disguise?
Make little mistake – you’ll be hard-pressed to find brazen antics or shocking ploys. No, Gray’s brand of audacity works on a more refined level. The envelope she dares to push on Johnson Street is one of true substance and, indeed, this sophomore release should firmly establish her as a songwriter who dares to be at once brave yet vulnerable, cunning yet achingly sincere.
One part heartland Americana, two parts elaborate ‘70s rock throwback, Johnson Street lays all manner of love and loss out on the table while aiming straight for the jugular in terms of both lyrical expressiveness and musical swagger. From the bright, harmonic buoyancy of “’Til The Stars Go Away” to the hard-nosed kiss-off, “Step Out of My Way”, Gray reveals both romantic idealism and no-nonsense tenacity. “Pretty Cameo Star” offers decidedly noir-ish lamentation and, paired with the slow-burn of “Come Over Again”, we’re transported into a world of melancholy and yearning sensuality.
On the flip side, “If You Love Me” is a retro slice of radio-ready Heaven, while either the rollicking “Devil’s Angels” or Gray’s stomping, Zeppelin-esque re-spin on Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” could easily become the quintessential, girls’-night-out party song of 2010… and beyond.
With its wide emotive range, Johnson Street, actually plays a bit like a private musical diary. And given a stumble across the master key, who could resist opening things up to sneak a look? Gray explains the impetus behind the songs emerged largely through a confluence of factors, all of which occurred within the course of less than a week and literally shook her foundations on multiple levels. The first ball to drop was a long-time relationship which ended badly – on her birthday. Shortly thereafter, she found herself caught in a seemingly unfathomable traffic jam, only to find later she was less than a minute shy of the August 2007 35-W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
Lastly, just one day after moving alone into a new apartment with nothing much more than some personal possessions and a closet’s worth of clothes, she was burglarized. Though there wasn’t a whole lot to lose, the sense of violation was nonetheless irrefutable. As was the loneliness … not to mention the stark mortal reminder. Suffice it to say, Gray suddenly found herself with a lot of time – and a lot of cause for reflection.
Reflect she did. Johnson Street weaves a twisting path through loss, fear and heartbreak, detours its way around anger and despair, and finds a way back to hope, fortitude and joyous ambition. The album title is no mistake – it’s the name of the street on which that burglarized apartment stands; a place which, over the course of two years, she came to call home. “To have a collection of songs that reflect that journey feels monumental,” says Gray. “And they feel perfectly housed on Johnson Street …a place where upon first arrival I was like a cornered cat, to now, the warmest, most comfortable place I’ve ever lived.”
Similarly, Johnson Street also represents substantial creative and professional progression. Gray caught a big break early on, cutting her teeth as a backup singer and percussionist in Martin Zellar’s “Neil!” – a wildly successful and long-lived tribute to Neil Diamond. “I learned so much from Martin and his band about rock-and-roll etiquette, stage protocol, what type of performer I hoped to be and how to be gracious,” says Gray.
During that time, she also began work on her debut solo CD. Let You In was largely the end product of co-writing relationships established initially in Nashville. Though she credits that learning process as invaluable experience, it also helped solidify in her mind what she didn’t want. Whereas Gray expresses enthusiastic admiration for artists like Faith Hill and Martina McBride, she is reluctant to limit her musical approach to any specific sound or genre. She professes absolute fanaticism for Springsteen, and cites Shelby Lynne, Patti Griffin and Jewel as performers with whom she strongly identifies. “What’s most important to me is freedom of artistic interpretation; I want to avoid being labeled or stuck in a squeaky-clean-country-girl-singer box.”
Minneapolis producer Patrik Tanner helped flesh out the final arrangements for Let You In to lend it a largely stripped-down, roots rock feel. Tanner also signed on to play guitar for her live act, which includes two members of his own band, The Faraway Men. “It took me a long time to get over being surprised when they showed up at gigs,” laughs Gray. “Suddenly, I felt like I might be a contender on the local circuit.”
When it came time to begin recording Johnson Street, there was little question about returning to Tanner, who again proved vital on the partnership side of things. The two share a proclivity for heartfelt lyricism, and that mutual sympathy clearly aided the creative process. “I’d sing the words and melodies to Patrik that I had in mind, and he’d just jump right along on acoustic guitar; he would set up a mic to record everything, then we’d listen back to what we had, re-tweak, re-work until we had something. A lot of collaboration on the fly.”
As to defining the overall sound, “with this record, I was definitely aiming for higher energy – more rock sounds and less country, more of a throwback to ‘60s and ‘70s music, lots of harmony vocals and a heartier, meatier sound.” Tanner’s production moves stylishly through the A-to-Z archives – touching on everything from The Byrds to Bowie, Nick Lowe to Lindsay Buckingham, George Harrison to Randy Newman – while Gray’s pure voice ties it all together and lends refreshing authenticity to the affair.
Pure? Refreshing? Authentic? The true makings of a daredevil? It takes a lot of guts these days to pull off candor and gracefulness. Ali Gray does them both with subtle ease. “Hey, I’ve already been through the rebel chapter … spray painted everything, pierced my face, razored my locks and striped them out in red and black. So hardcore.
“As it turns out, exhibitionism wasn’t my thing,” says Gray. “I like pink and lace.”